People often get carried away when they discover the original vision of hypertext, which involves a network of documents, portions of which are “transcluded” (included via hypertext) into one another. The implication is that readers could follow any reference and see the source material—and granted, this would be transformative. However, there’s a limit to the effectiveness of the knowledge network as a reading experience. “Hypertext books,” online books which are made up of an abundance of interlinked HTML pages, are mostly unpopular. The failure of this experiment is, in my opinion, very revealing.

Knowledge is not an accumulation of facts, nor is it even a set of facts and their relations. Facts are only rendered meaningful within narratives, and the single-page document is a format very conducive to narrative structure. The hypertext books that have gained popularity (I’m thinking here of Meaningness.com) have largely conformed to this in two ways: 1) there is an intended reading order, and 2) the longer essays within the project do most of the heavy lifting in terms of imparting the author’s perspective to readers.

Toby Shorin